As I write this, my head is still spinning with the whirlwind that is the SCAR 4-day challenge. “Let the adventure begin,” I posted on my Facebook the night before the first swim. And the adventure did not disappoint.
With ideal conditions, massive cliffs, blue waters and beauty as far as the eye could see, I was perfectly positioned to meet my goal of savoring each moment, even the ones that hurt. I knew the whole time that the experience would be over in the blink of an eye, that sometime soon I’d be where I am now: on a plane, sipping airport coffee and wishing we could start all over at the beginning and do it again.
Last night, as the sun was setting during the final day/stage, Roosevelt Lake, I watched the pinks and purples on the horizon behind me, gently stroking double arm backstroke to stretch my shoulders. Dan paddled quietly beside me. I tried to photograph the moment in my mind, the profile of the mountains, the sunset colors, the glassy water stretching on for forever behind me. This is truly the best reward, I thought. And you don’t get to take this one home, so soak it in now.
For anyone reading who isn’t familiar with SCAR, it is a four day stage race in Arizona, with distances ranging from 6.2-17 miles for each day. It was originally a training and adventure swim rather than a race per se, and I think for many of us, it still is. That being said, there is a pretty nifty prize–the famous SCAR belt buckle, which looks like this.
SCAR is also one of the best organized, well-run, fun-focused events out there. When I think about the logistics of running this thing, it’s mind boggling. The lakes are a chain of reservoirs on The Salt River, the water supply for Phoenix. Each swim started at a dam and finished at the next dam. Swimmers and kayakers must be transported by boat to the start and back to the staging areas after the finish. There are about 40 swimmers in each race. I watched the race organizers deal flexibly, cheerfully and gracefully with all kinds of logistical challenges. Many volunteers were swimmers who had completed the event before or other events like it. Everyone was encouraging, humorous, and positive to be around. On the SCAR swim Facebook page, you can see great videos of these folks in action. From crew doing back flips off the pontoon to saving each other from a diamondback rattlesnake that boarded the boat, these awesome people did it all.
Above: The rattler swims swiftly toward the pontoon boat before slithering aboard!
Being at SCAR, you really get a deep sense of what the marathon swimming community is about. I made a ton of new friends and got to know my current friends even better. There’s nothing like an epic experience to tie people together.
Day one, Saguaro Lake, is often referred to as “the warm up”. At 9.5 miles, (8 if you go by our gps), it’s a pretty long warm up. But I can see why they call it that. I was happy with how I swam, but I didn’t find my groove mentally until the second day (or stage) of the event. I was kind of distracted, more frantic and not really relaxed like I enjoy being on a longer swim. I texted a friend, SCAR veteran Jamie Proffit, that night that I thought maybe I tried to hard. Tried too hard? Is that a thing?
The next day was Canyon Lake and rather than swim frantically, I set a goal to appreciate and value each moment of the swim and to not ask for things to be different than they are. By that, I mean being in the present moment even if the moment is uncomfortable. Your arm hurts? Well ok, that’s what’s happening now. You’re feeling frustrated? Ok, that’s what’s happening right now. Someone just passed you? Ok, fine that’s just what’s going on. It’s different than apathy. It’s acceptance, which allowed me to work with whatever the current conditions were. As I focused on allowing things that were not under my control, I noticed my appreciation for other things would come into sharper focus. Ideal conditions, scenery, Dan’s skillful paddling strokes and cool cowboy hat were things that took center stage in my mind. Other swimmers became companions rather than competitors. I wasn’t fighting my experience at all and found my strokes getting longer, the technique I have practiced coming through smoothly. I absolutely loved this approach. Oddly, I had the best time, even during those moments that were really hard.
Another aspect I enjoyed was how Dan and I were able to dial in our teamwork. We added some hand signals that helped allow him to guide us through the most efficient path through the steep, curving canyon. I later learned that some other swimmers swam much further than I did (according to their gps devices), which highlights the importance of the crew-swimmer-team aspect of marathon swimming. My successes became our successes because I wouldn’t have done nearly as well without him. Here’s me and Dan, photo credit to Patty Hermann!
The third day is “the big one”, Apache Lake, billed as a 17 miler, but perhaps closer to 14 if you’re going by my gps watch. Distances on these things vary, depending on what route you take. The route depends on the conditions. For instance, if there is a headwind, it’s to your advantage to stay close to the more protected cliffs on the north side of the lake. You may swim further, but you would still be faster, due to calmer water. We actually had a tailwind for the first part of the race, so Dan set a course straight down the middle of the lake. The wind launched my body forward with every stroke. The motion of swimming fast sent me into a euphoric state. Good song after good song played in my head and I was on a roll. My heart rate was up and I was surging ahead, my muscles feeling strong as they worked together with the wind to travel on down the length of the massive lake. I told myself to slow down. I still had an estimated four hours to swim. I was less than one third done. But I found that I couldn’t. The adrenaline the wind was stirring up was just too much. My coach, Rich Suhs, had reminded me via text the night before to keep my head down and hips up. “Float like a boat”, he said. I kept thinking about that, which only added to the speed and fueled the euphoria.
The big surge went on for a couple hours, somehow. Then the wind calmed and the water became glassy. It was truly beautiful, the landscape reflecting off the lake in the distance. I found myself cruising at a more sobered, respectably grounded pace. I discovered that the scenery was much easier to view there, at Apache, because it was further away. I could look across the water on a breath, my head turned to the side, and see the entire height of the cliffs on the walls of the lake. At Canyon and Saguaro (first two days), I had trouble seeing much, since the cliffs were so close. I’d look up on a breath and just see rock directly beside me. I decided Apache was my favorite so far.
Then came the hard part. Out of nowhere, my left hip sort of gave out. I’m not sure how to describe the problem, but I had to kick with one leg for a little while. The left leg dragged behind me, useless. I tried some different positions, yelling to Dan to switch the kayak to my left side. I found that breathing exclusively to my left began to relieve the pressure and before long I was able to use the leg again. Eventually, after a half hour, hour? I was able to breath to my right side again without any hip trouble. Unfortunately, by then the damage was done. Breathing exclusively to my left had placed a disproportionate amount of burden on my right arm. Every few strokes brought a sudden, very sharp pain to the area near my lats and shoulder blade. “F@*$!!!” I yelled, involuntarily into the air during a breath. (Only what I yelled didn’t have the @ or the *.) Dan looked at me in alarm. I later learned he thought I was mad at him. I’m ok! I shouted on the next breath. I didn’t want to stop because I didn’t know what would happen if I did. I closed my fist on my right arm so that I could continue to stroke but without much pressure on my right arm muscles. I flipped over and did backstroke for awhile. I did breastroke, double arm backstroke. Tried freestyle again. Closed fist. Open fist. Still, every few strokes, the pain would sear me. “Oh Jess, what have you done?” I asked myself, thinking I must be now paying the price for my euphoric surge. Would I be able to finish? I looked behind me and didn’t see anyone at all. “There’s no one around,” I said to Dan. “How are you doing,?” he asked while I drank from my hydroflask. Thumbs sideways, I said, with my thumb. It was the first thumbs sideways I’ve ever given him. I always give him thumbs up, even during cold swims when I am really uncomfortable. I knew I had to “allow” this experience as well. It was just what was happening, like everything else. I started swimming again, taking very, very gentle strokes with my right arm. I was absolutely babying it and taking my time. I can’t say for how long I did this, but eventually the muscle must have sorted itself out because I was gradually able to increase the pressure on it without having any pain. Then everything was back to normal again. Normal muscle pain in my arms, normal muscle pain in my legs. For awhile I just admired more scenery.
The wind picked up again, only this time it was a headwind. It got choppy, but Dan took us toward a point and once there, we received some protection from the wind. Oddly, the headwind forced my stroke to change just enough that I must’ve been using slightly different muscles, because things hurt less, even though progress was slower. I picked my head up and was shocked to see we appeared to be heading right into a random cove with no outlet. What are we doing? Where are we going? I shouted at Dan, stopping and frantically looking around. “To that point over there!” He yelled back. “Go!”
I could just barely make out the faint outline of a point, camouflaged to look like just a cove. Dan told me later that he could hardly see it either, but had seen boats enter there, far in the distance. I again found myself overwhelmed with gratitude for his presence and skill. It turned out that this was the point right before the final push to the dam! After rounding the point, Dan spotted the orange buoys in the distance and gave me a thumbs up. I felt another surge coming on. He gave me another thumbs up a little later and I picked my head up to see what was ahead. Spotting the orange buoys, I got so excited that I put my stroke into full throttle and sprinted to the finish, whacking the line of orange buoys with a huge smile on my face.
Going into day four, I was in the lead for the overall series. I had decided before even coming to SCAR that the adventure and camaraderie was going to be the cake and the frosting of the cupcake and the competition could be there, but it would need to be the cherry on the very top. I’m proud I was able to keep that straight in my head, and having some good races was exciting and motivated me to try hard. As mentioned previously, this event was originally (and mostly still is) a training and adventure swim. People are respected and admired for many different skills, traits and experiences. I’m not just saying that because it sounds good. It really is the case. Someone with a lot of experience in marathon swimming (like a lot of channel crossings or otherwise hard swims) is highly respected, regardless of their speed. However, when it comes to speed, one aspect I appreciate about marathon swimming is that women are often competing on the same level as men. For instance, the winner of the Apache and Roosevelt swims was Catherine Breed, a woman from California, training for a North Channel crossing. I was second and many other women did very well on those lakes. Jamie Ann Phillips, a woman from Tennessee, won SCAR overall (men’s and women’s combined) for the four lakes last year and I won the overall this year. In some, smaller races, like END-WET, men and women are not even scored in separate categories. At SCAR, there are two belt buckles awarded for the speediest man and woman, a practice I fully support because, well, the belt buckles are awesome–why not give out two of them. But it’s cool that a female overall winner is not only possible but happening more often.
All of that being said, at the start of the final swim, I was still committed to my goal of savoring the experience, maybe especially so because it was the last swim. Roosevelt Lake is the night swim, so we adorned our kayaks, suits and goggles with lights and glow sticks. Our wave (heat) started at around 4:45 or so, with sunset at 7:05. I thought maybe the swim (6.2 miles) would take me three hours, because that’s about how long it took other people in some other years and there was a substantial (but not terrible) headwind. After rounding an island, we entered the main part of the lake. The choppy water tossed my arms around, ruining my technique. I found myself thankful for all the kicking I do at practice because it was easier to rely on my steady kick in the rough water than on my arms. I slowed my turnover down and found a steady catch-up stroke style rhythm and actually enjoyed the change in environment from the glassy conditions we had been blessed with in the days prior.
As the sun was setting, the lake settled into total calm again. I switched to backstroke so I could look around and watch the sunset. Looking behind me took my breath away. “Wow,” was all I could say. Dan looked behind him too. It was a beautiful site. Pinks, purples, yellow, orange and red painted the sky, while the sparkling lights of other kayaks and swimmers surrounded us. All moments during swims are worth savoring, I’ve come to find, but this one was especially enticing.
Getting Dan to switch the kayak to my left allowed me to view more colors on the horizon with every breath to the right. Just as the sky began to darken, we arrived at the bridge, which is near the finish line of orange buoys at the dam. It’s tradition to swim backstroke under bridges, so I did that.
The dam was lit up beautifully and I made a deal with myself: 50 fast stroke cycles freestyle, then 10 easy breastroke strokes to admire the dam in front on me. Before I knew it, the swim was complete, SCAR was complete. I was on the boat, other swimmers were arriving at the finish, Kent Nicholas (race director extraordinaire) was handing me and John “Batches” Batchelder our belt buckles and the boat was heading back to the marina.
Me and Batches with our SCAR belt buckles, post-race.
I always knew it would be over too soon. Batches and I had joked about swimming back to the marina (I don’t think either of us were actually joking–we both really wanted to). I kind of wish we had, but then again it’s always good to end hungry for more.